Frustrated with the Starr County ambulance system, Rio Grande City may partner with Palmview to provide better emergency medical services.
When they call 911, residents frequently wait 15 to 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, said Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal, who called the response times unacceptable.
Rio Grande City is considering several options to reduce response times, including contracts with private ambulance providers and an agreement with the Palmview Fire Department.
While the details remain subject to negotiation, Palmview proposed a three-phase partnership with Rio Grande City.
During the first phase, the Palmview Fire Department would provide ambulance service in Rio Grande City. During the second phase, the Rio Grande City Fire Department would create an emergency medical services division, buy ambulances and start hiring paramedics. And during the third phase, the Rio Grande City Fire Department would launch a full-fledged ambulance service.
“If you want accountability and control, in my opinion, that should be a public function,” said Palmview Interim City Manager Leo Olivares. “Go to the major metro areas. See what you find there. You’re going to find publicly owned and operated EMS.”
Personal connections helped bring Palmview and Rio Grande City together.
Olivares is originally from Rio Grande City. Palmview City Councilman Joel Garcia also has Starr County ties.
Major questions about the partnership remain.
After years of planning, the Palmview Fire Department’s first ambulance started responding to 911 calls in February. The city plans to deploy a second ambulance during October or November, but that ambulance will only operate during peak hours.
Palmview is also still waiting on a Medicaid billing number and attempting to reach agreements with private insurance providers.
It’s not clear how quickly Palmview could purchase new ambulances and hire additional paramedics to serve Rio Grande City — or how quickly the Rio Grande City Fire Department could build an emergency medical services division from scratch.
The Starr County Hospital District, which owns Starr County Memorial Hospital, currently serves the county with six ambulances and about 20 emergency medical technicians.
Along with handling 911 calls, the hospital district ambulances frequently transport patients from Starr County to Hidalgo County. The trip takes ambulances out of service for at least 90 minutes.
The hospital district ambulances respond to 911 calls as quickly as possible, but response times vary.
“We really try our best,” said hospital CEO Thalia H. Munoz.
When she heard Rio Grande City had talked with Palmview about providing emergency medical services, Munoz said she wondered how Palmview would break even. Starr County depends on property taxes to subsidize ambulance service because many patients can’t afford medical insurance.
“And the reimbursement rate isn’t that big,” Munoz said.
While Palmview intends to cover the cost of providing service, profit isn’t the primary goal, said Olivares, the Palmview city manager.
“We’re not profit-driven,” Olivares said. “We’re service-driven.”